Memories of the 1980 NBA Finals

I’m convinced that nobody has ever loved a team more than I loved the Philadelphia 76ers of the early 1980s. I never missed a game; be it on TV, the radio, which is how one had to keep up with home games in the pre-cable era, or in person. 

The Sixers and Lakers faced off in the finals three times in four years during a period that has been brought back to the country’s consciousness by HBO in their series about the Showtime Lakers. While the ‘83 finals was the most enjoyable for me – as that was the only time the Sixers won – the 1980 series was perhaps more memorable for a variety of reasons, some of them personal. I remember much of it vividly – without having watched a single episode of the HBO show.

After losing the 1977 finals to Portland, the Sixers failed to make it that far in ‘78 or ‘79. But by 1980, the team had improved by way of both the draft, which had brought them point guard and floor general Mo Cheeks the previous year, and a trade of team star George McGinnis to Denver in exchange for defensive standout Bobby Jones. 

Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones helped turn the Sixers from a collection of individual talent into a real team.

Julius Erving also had his best season since joining the Sixers in 1976-77. He stopped wearing the large knee braces that had become one of his trademarks the previous few years and played more aggressively. 

The Sixers had been known as a collection of great individual talent that didn’t always gel as a team during the mid to late 70s. But they put that reputation behind them in ‘79-’80 and appeared to be back on an upward trajectory with a real shot to bring home the title.

After beating the arch-rival Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals, they moved on to face the Lakers for the Championship.

On a personal note, I mentioned in a previous post that both our color and black & white TVs were on the fritz when the series started. I had to borrow a portable black & white set from relatives who lives near us to watch at least a couple of the games. Our new color set didn’t arrive until week four of the 1980 NFL season. I know that because the first thing I watched on it was the Eagles suffering their first loss of the season to the Cardinals after winning their previous three games in very impressive fashion.

But enough about my TV situation.

The two teams split the first pair of games at the Forum in L.A. and headed east to resume the series at the Spectrum in Philly. The Lakers won the third game, which set up a nearly must-win situation for the Sixers in Game 4. And I was there to see it.

While the game wasn’t particularly dramatic, the Doctor provided one of the most magical moments in NBA finals history on the way to a Sixers’ win that evened the series.

I am fairly sure I’m in the above photo. I sat in the top level and recall the angle at which I saw “the shot.”

But the real excitement started in Game 5, which was back in L.A.

The Sixers fell behind by double digits in the fourth quarter when Dr. J caught fire. He was double or triple teamed every time down the floor, but it wasn’t enough. He virtually single-handedly brought the Sixers back to tie the game by scoring 16 points in a little over half a quarter. 

But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was also brilliant that night with 40 points, won the game for the Lakers when he dunked over the Doctor and was fouled in the process for a three-point play in the final minute. 

In what seemed like a potentially crushing blow to the Lakers, their star center also suffered an ankle injury late in the game and would not be available for at least Game 6, which would be played at the Spectrum. And once again, I was there.

While I sat up in the nose-bleed seats for Game 4, friends of my mother had ticket connections and were able to get us floor seats behind the basket that was closest to the Lakers’ bench for Game 6.

It was known beforehand that Jabbar wouldn’t be playing that night. I recall being perhaps a bit too confident of a win for the Sixers because of Kareem’s absence. I should have known better – but I was still young.

The real surprise at game time was who Lakers’ coach Paul Westhead tapped to play center in place of Jabbar – none other than rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who had led his Michigan State Spartans to an NCAA Championship the previous year and revived the Lakers title hopes with his spectacular debut season as a pro.

Right from the game’s start, the Lakers played brilliantly and opened up a lead with Magic dominating the flow of play. But the Sixers began to claw their way back and pulled to within a point in the fourth quarter. 

During a timeout, Sixers’ coach Billy Cunningham called for one of the team’s set plays – a post-up for reserve forward Steve Mix, who had been tough to stop from a spot on the floor known as “Mixville” all season long. As usual, he took a pass in the post and wheeled into the lane for his patented left-handed scoop shot. If it had gone in, the Sixers would have led the game. But after appearing to do so, it somehow spun back out. Dependable Bobby Jones was in position to tip it in, but that bounced off the back of the rim and into the hands of one of the Lakers who threw an outlet pass for a fast-break that ended in an old-fashioned three-point play. 

Instead of being up one, the Sixers were down four. The play changed the momentum of the game for good and the Lakers never looked back, pulling away to win the first of what would be five titles during the 1980s.

Magic scored 42, pulled down 15 rebounds, and dished out seven assists. It was a performance for the ages.

Not that far from my vantage point at the time.

I’ll never forget the sound of the Lakers slapping hands and screaming with joy. Seeing their celebration as I made my way to the Spectrum’s exit with my family was one of the sad memories of my sports-obsessed youth. 

Published by BZ Maestro

I live outside of Philadelphia and have been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember. After toying with the idea of starting a blog for a fairly long time, the extinction of a food-themed message board that I frequented for years prompted me to finally take action. Thank you for taking the time to check out what I've been up to - and eating. If you've enjoyed what you have read and seen, please consider clicking the "like" button and signing up as a follower.

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